Better a live donkey than a dead lion

The art of decision making, by Neil Bradbrook

< Back to Insights

In 1908 – sandwiched between Captain Scott’s first trip to the Antarctic and his fateful second trip – Ernest Shackleton led his own expedition and set the new record for “furthest south”.

Shackleton and his men were within 100 nautical miles of the South Pole when he decided to turn back. He was pretty confident they could make it – and be the first to achieve that feat – but he didn’t believe they could get there and get back alive.

As he wrote in a letter to his wife: “I thought, dear, you would rather have a live ass than a dead lion.”

Three years later, Scott’s decision-making was not as bold. Indeed, his expedition was characterised by a series of poor decisions. While no one decision sealed his fate, each increased risk and further eroded his margin for error.

In such a hostile environment you need as big a margin of error as possible. Scott even had a similar decision point when the party split – he could have chosen to turn back then, and no-one would have thought less of him; he even knew the chances of making it to the pole and back were slight (and unknown to him Amundsen had already reached the pole and was on his way back).

Yet he chose to go on and become a dead lion. History has been kind to him, and he is feted a hero – but his decision-making cost his life and those of his four companions.

This article then, is about decision-making and how we can we improve it, with these three top tips:

1. Don’t make an important decision on your own

  • Even if you are the ultimate decision-maker, seek counsel.
  • Without consultation you will lack both perspective and facts.
  • Scott made many of his key decisions alone. His closest confident – a doctor – knew some of the men Scott chose for the final party were not fit, but he was not asked for an opinion. A better selection and they might have survived.


2. Don’t surround yourself with “Yes Men”

  • None of us know all the answers and can make the right decision every time – we make better decisions when people challenge our opinion and make us think.
  • You may still choose the same path, but now it will be with greater understanding.
  • Similarly, ensure your advisors are from a diverse background – if all your advisors have the same perspective then you do not have a rounded view.


3. Avoid making important decisions when you are stressed or under-pressure

  • It is scientifically proven that most of us tend to make poor decisions when stressed.
  • Often important decisions are needed in time of crisis. This is why those who can remain calm and “keep their heads” are the most valuable leaders in a crisis.

Find out about the five steps to successful decision making on our follow-up blog: ‘Problems, decisions and risks, oh my’.